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Lakers 110, Wolves 109: In a Nutshell

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A perfect encapsulation of the 2016-17 Timberwolves.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Where do I start?

The Los Angeles Lakers escaped with a home win over the Timberwolves on Sunday night thanks to a shooter's bounce off the home rim.

I genuinely don’t know how to recap that loss. But I do know this: Sunday night’s loss is the 2016-17 Minnesota Timberwolves season in a nutshell.

I could send it hundreds of different directions from there—the late-game collapse and the dumb Minnesota sports luck would be fun options—but I want to at least have some fun writing this.

Minnesota began the season off to a slow start, just as it did on Sunday night against the Lakers. But amidst the slow start were spectacular individual displays from both Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

It’s been the theme of the entire season. Towns and Wiggins have been praised universally for their offensive prowess, and for good reason. The numbers are bonkers, quite frankly. Towns is averaging 24.9 points and 12.1 rebounds on 53.1 percent from the floor and 36.1 percent from beyond the arc. Those numbers jump to 28.0/12.6/58.8/42.3 since the All-Star break. On an individual scale, that’s unprecedented for a dude who was younger than all 10 starters in the 2017 NCAA Championship game. Towns is basically playing NBA 2K on rookie difficulty when he’s on offense.

Wiggins, meanwhile, is managing 23.5 points per game on 45.3 percent from the field and a career-high 35.6 percent from three-point range. Statistically, the progression is clear for the former Jayhawk in his third season.

The staggering offensive output is certainly impressive and deserves praise. But does it mean anything if it’s not equating to positive team results?

The progression for both Towns and Wiggins on the defensive end was stagnant in 2016-17. Plus, whether this can be attributed to the heavy minutes or not, the lack of focus and effort is apparent.

Sunday’s loss at Staples Center encapsulates this into one game. Towns and Wiggins combined to drop 81 points on 30-48 (.625%) shooting. Yet, the Wolves found a way to lose to a Laker team that appeared to have embraced tank mode in hopes of keeping its first-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Re-watch the second half and count how many times the Lakers ran a play for Metta World Peace. That’s what tanking looks like. Except, the Lakers refuse to lose lately so it’s tough to call them true tankers.

Luke Walton’s team can't even get the tank job right, collecting four straight wins to push them past the Phoenix Suns and into the third best lottery odds. Ricky O'Donnell notes the risk the Lakers are taking in his 2017 NBA mock draft this morning:

This recent streak dropped their odds of winning the lottery from a 19.9 percent to 15.6 percent. L.A.’s pick goes to the Philadelphia 76ers if it lands outside the top-three. If that happens, the Lakers also owe their 2019 first-rounder to the Orlando Magic.

But back to last night’s game...

The low defensive intensity isn’t just a Towns or Wiggins issue. It’s a team-wide problem that was never an issue on Thibodeau’s previous teams. If the reason for such poor defensive effort is the complexity of Thibodeau’s system, should it really be in place if it’s taking a whole year to be executed?

Thibodeau also made three-point shooting a priority when he took over almost a year ago, but that hasn’t changed at all. Sam Mitchell was harped constantly about three-point shooting but it hasn’t improved whatsoever under Thibs. That’s a rock solid 3-for-16 effort in Los Angeles. Minnesota is last by a wide margin in three-point attempts and only hitting them at a 35 percent mark, good enough for 20th.

But, hey, Towns and Wiggins both scored 40 and dunked and stuff!

How many times over the last couple of seasons have we’ve been mesmerized by a highlight tape from Towns or Wiggins in a losing effort? The gaudy numbers are fun, but the Wolves are still lacking in the effort and defensive departments—both of which I have been told are important.

For the second consecutive season, the Wolves are surrendering historically bad numbers on defense. Thibodeau’s expertise on that end was supposed to ignite a turnaround, but I can’t imagine that turnaround was supposed to produce zero progression in year one.

If we can take anything away from the wacky loss, we know a few questions that need to be answered if the Wolves will ever become a playoff team under Thibs.

Was Thibs’ past success coaching defense due to his philosophies? Or was it a talented defensive group executing in an average system?

What about the bench? Is the bench actually that bad? Or is Thibs’ stubbornness to play the starters 75 minutes per game giving the perception of a poor bench due to low minutes?

And maybe the most polarizing question: How much better for the Timberwolves is Thibodeau than Sam Mitchell?

Sunday’s loss to the Lakers is a tough one to swallow. But it so perfectly summarized the season in a nutshell that it has brought forward the top offseason priorities—bench production, perimeter shooting and defense.

Not that those three things are important or anything.